Back to school – Teaching English

By Carol / September 19, 2023 /

Back to school is an exciting time. New books. New subjects to learn. New friends to make. I went back to school this fall, too, but not as a student. Now, I teach. My students are adult refugees and immigrants learning to read, write, and speak English.

A year ago, the refugee situation in Iowa reached a crisis level when new refugees started to come into the United States. However, refugee resettlement services cut deeply during the previous administration struggled to keep up. I felt I needed to do something to help.

I reached out to Oakridge Neighborhood where I’ve served on the board for many years. Oakridge is a Section 8 housing neighborhood providing a vast system of support services to help residents prosper. I signed up to volunteer in the English Language Learners (ELL*) classes.

Adults go back to school to learn to read, write, and speak English at Oakridge Neighborhood.

Des Moines Area Community College  provides the head teacher and books. My students are from east African nations. Some of them were well educated in their own countries while others had never been in a classroom in their lives.

In truth, I am learning as much as the students, and often the learning is most unexpected.

Cultural learning

One story we read told about a family going camping by a river. A student struggled with the word ‘tent’ and what it meant. It took several moments as the students spoke in Kunama before this student looked at me in disbelief. “Tents aren’t safe,” she said. “The lions claw through them.” Her comment made me see life in the refugee camp where she and her children lived for six years in a whole new way.

Repetition, pantomime, flexibility and patience are all required teaching skills. Practice, dedication, persistence, are required learning skills. And the students have made excellent progress.

I shared in the joy and pride one student showed after she called the doctor’s office to make an appointment. She explained every step she took: finding the office number and calling, saying her name, spelling it, explaining why she needed to see the doctor, settling on a date and time. Previously, she relied on one of her English-speaking children to make these calls. 

Resilience and dedication

The longer I work with these students, the more I am impressed by their resilience. They work night jobs and still make it to class, struggling sometimes to stay awake, but still there. They’re in class while they worry about a child who’s in the hospital and they can barely understand what the doctor tells them. They keep on even when they’ve heard that the wars in Sudan or Eritrea have moved near the villages where family members still live.

These students are learning to live in a strange, new country. English isn’t easy, but in learning to speak, read, and write English, they make a complicated life infinitely easier. They open a world of possibility. I’m grateful to help them succeed.

* ELL – English Language Learners – rather than ESL – English as a Second Language? ELL recognizes that many students already speak several languages and English is yet another.


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  1. Carol Ervin on September 20, 2023 at 5:43 am

    First, I was happy to see your name pop up in my newsfeed. Second, I am so impressed by your new endeavor. Some time ago I thought I might teach ESL to the Spanish-speaking population in my area, but there were no opportunities. Then when opportunity arose, I decided I was too old to cope with classes and students again. I envy you!

    • Carol on September 20, 2023 at 12:45 pm

      Good to connect again, Carol. Teaching takes a lot of energy! “Old” isn’t entirely a state of mind. I teach two days a week, and I’ve recruited two volunteers to work with me. With their help, we can divide the class and give more one-on-one attention to the students – at the same time, it gives us teachers a break.

  2. CAROL ERVIN on September 21, 2023 at 10:01 am

    Love that! Good to connect with you, too.

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